Born in Tehran, Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, the Robert I. Williams Term Professor of History in the School of Arts & Sciences, spent the first part of her life in Iran during the reign of the shah, and was an eyewitness as events unfolded during the 1979 Iranian Revolution that removed the shah from power and gave rise to the Ayatollah Khomeini.
“I remember the revolution as a very violent moment, a very disruptive moment,” she says. “I think the one word that I will always remember is that it was very violent. It was characterized by great uncertainty, fear, and just awe. It was just an awe-inspiring event.”
Kashani-Sabet stayed in Iran through the start of the Iran-Iraq War, then lived in France for a year before moving to the United States.
It was at the Hotchkiss School, an independent boarding school in Connecticut, that Kashani-Sabet says she received “a really excellent academic foundation and education” that set her on the right path academically. She completed her undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, majoring in international studies and French literature, and her master’s and Ph.D. coursework in history at Yale. She joined the Penn community in 1999, and has served as director of the University’s Middle East Center since 2006.
As a 17-year-old, Kashani-Sabet wrote in her diary, “I will one day write a book of history or fiction.” A historian by trade and writer by heart, she has done both, most often writing about her native Iran and its borderlands. Her first book, “Frontier Fictions: Shaping the Iranian Nation, 1804-1946,” was published in 1999 and her first novel, “Martyrdom Street,” was published in 2010.
“I always knew I wanted to write,” she says. “I think as I grew older and was inhabiting my personality, my professional identity, I realized that whatever I did, I would have to be in a profession that would allow me to read and write.”
The Current visited Kashani-Sabet at the Middle East Center in Fisher-Bennett Hall for a wide-ranging conversation about the Arab Spring, U.S.-Iranian relations, a brief history of modern Iran, the current state of the Middle East, and why things may get worse in the region before they get better.
Q: You lived through the 1979 Iranian Revolution that transformed the country into an Islamic state. How was the experience? Was it fast-moving like the recent revolution in Tunisia?
A: I wouldn’t say so, no. I think it was really a year-and-a-half to two-year period in which things progressively became more politically charged and radicalized. Then, toward the end, it just seemed like it was acquiring a life of its own, and eventually it began to accelerate toward the beginning of 1979.
Q: What are your thoughts about the current state of the Middle East? The region has seen better days.
A: The Middle East is a beautiful place. I think that when you listen to the news, it’s hard not to be depressed about the Middle East, and I can certainly understand why. But there’s a part of me that always remains hopeful because the region itself embraces so many different cultures, religions, languages, peoples, and history. I believe that at the end of the day, these inspiring roots will be able to overcome the current political morass in which the region finds itself.
Q: Were you surprised by the popular uprisings that became the Arab Spring?
A: I don’t think I was entirely surprised because we had just seen the Green Movement in Iran. But the rapidity with which [the Arab Spring] spread I found very interesting.
Q: Why do you think the uprisings spread so quickly?
A: Because I think the same types of issues were on the minds of people and intellectuals in the region. People in so many different contexts were responding to these authoritarian or autocratic political structures, trying to find ways to enfranchise themselves within the political system.
Q: Why do you think the Green Movement wasn’t successful in Iran?
A: I think there was an absence of leadership. I think that while it was very inspiring, they didn’t have a clear message other than, ‘We want to be free.’ Also, they had no means of resistance against the central government, which cracked down on the movement.
Q: Iran seems like a complex political case with what looks like aspects of democracy. It’s autocratic, but also has presidential elections.
A: Well, they do, but I would say that the elections are very manipulated, very controlled, so I wouldn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, say that it’s even close to being free. The religious authorities are clearly in charge with real and undue amounts of influence, both in the electoral process and in the day-to-day management of the country. It’s a theocracy that cements in power the religious classes.
Q: Are there any similarities between the Iranian Revolution and the Arab Spring?
A: Revolutions are very chaotic. When you look at them in retrospect, we have a tendency to create a timeline that connects the dots in ways that they’re not really connected in the moment. As events are unfolding, there’s a lot of uncertainty. Our ability to connect the dots usually comes when there’s some distance, and some time has passed from the actual unfolding of the events. But I think when you compare the Iranian Revolution to the Arab Spring, they are similar in that certain groups of people had a lot of hopes attached to the revolution. In the case of Iran, I would say there was more of an ideological movement. In the Arab Spring, I think there was less of an ideological impetus. I think among the things that they had in common was this desire for disenfranchised groups within these countries to gain a voice in the political system. That was certainly very important. I also think that as the Arab Spring initially unfolded, it was less violent [than the Iranian Revolution]. In certain countries, it grew more violent over time, but in its initial stages, I think it wasn’t quite as bloody, with certain exceptions. I think another thing that they have in common is this desire for freedom, that there was a real desire to embrace freedom, however that might come about.
Q: Do you think the Syrian conflict will end anytime soon?
A: I don’t. I don’t think the conflict in Syria will end anytime soon. I think what we see in Syria is really reflective of a much larger process of political disenfranchisement on multiple levels that is just really bristling open and it’s come to the surface now. Syria is an interesting state because there is a minority religious group [Alawites] that is ruling over a majority [Sunnis]. The fact that a minority has controlled power for so long is a source of great conflict for the rest of the country. Then, of course, it’s become a proxy war where you have other countries in the region taking sides, and that’s turning it into a much larger sectarian conflict. That’s what makes Syria such a dangerous case, and also one in which I don’t see any quick or easy resolution.
Q: Egypt is going through some tough times as well.
A: Yes. I think part of what we see in the Middle East is a vacuum of leadership. Headless revolutions have a way of dying out. I think in all of these cases, it’s clear that there is no loud and conspicuous, alternative voice. That’s really the difference, I think, between a lot of these movements and the Iranian Revolution, because in the Iranian Revolution, it was clear from the outset that one of the main leaders was the Ayatollah Khomeini. We didn’t know if he was going to be the single leader, but there were clearly leaders that people gravitated around. We don’t really see this right now, and I think that absence of alternative leadership is a very important reason why there’s been such instability in the region.
Q: Yet you still remain hopeful?
A: I have to be hopeful. I think that the absence of hope makes us give up any attempt at imagining peace. So yes, I feel I have to remain hopeful—within reason. I don’t want to suspend disbelief, but I think that it’s that belief in the human spirit and the fact that at the end of the day, people just want to live their lives like everyone else.
Q: Do you think the United States should have any role, large or small, in the Middle East?
A: I think the United States wants to have a role in the Middle East, but the Middle East is a complicated place. For the United States to envision a role that is both productive and that does not harm its national interests is going to require a very sophisticated way of dealing with the region, which [the United States] has not always displayed. I think it absolutely makes sense that the United States would want to get involved in the Middle East, but involvement comes at a very heavy price. There have been some American missteps. In order for this involvement to be both measured and appropriate to the extent possible, I think there has to be a much more sophisticated way of dealing with the complexities of the region.
Q: You are preparing a book on America’s historical relationship with Iran, dating back to 1833. Does the U.S. have a long history with Iran?
A: It does, actually, and it wasn’t always an antagonistic one, especially at the turn of the [20th] century.
Q: When did it become antagonistic? With the 1979 Revolution?
A: I think predominantly, yes. I think [American] support of the shah was a reason, the fact that there were certain contradictions. Although during the presidency of Jimmy Carter there were discussions of human rights abuses under the shah's regime, they were often played down. And these conversations may have been too little too late.
Q: You have said that writing about Iran in the United States is ‘both rewarding and frustrating.’ While there is much more American interest in the country, you say ‘much of what is known about Iran is suffused with negative stereotypes.’ What are the some of the negative stereotypes?
A: I think a lot of these negative stereotypes are that Iran is a country where people are basically crazy and unreasonable; where all Iranians are enemies of Israel, or Jews, more specifically; that all Iranians dislike the West or the United States. These are some of the main ones; that Iranians are intolerant. And I make the distinction between Iran and Iranians. When I talk about Iranians, I really am talking about the people, not the government.
Q: The United States has admitted its role in the 1953 coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. Does America’s role in the coup still affect U.S.-Iranian relations?
A: I think it’s something no Iranian forgets. For Iranians, the [1953 coup] is akin to what the  hostage crisis is like for Americans. The hostage crisis is something that really bothers Americans to this day. It’s not something they’re ever going to forget. And although the events are not exactly the same or comparable, there is that same sense of feeling like your dignity has been undermined.
Q: Are you encouraged by the recent overtures between President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani?
A: I’m cautiously optimistic that this may be an opportunity, finally, for putting aside past differences and thinking about a way of moving ahead in a constructive way that is beneficial to the United States, Iran, and their partners in the region. I don’t think anyone would be foolish enough to think that either the United States or Iran are suddenly going to immediately forget 30 years of enmity, but I do think it’s within the realm of possibility to imagine a scenario in which the past is not forgotten, but it can be placed in parentheses, offering the possibility of moving ahead and building what I hope will be new bridges of communication and interaction.
Q: Iran is a Persian country unlike the majority Arab Middle East. Can you explain the difference between Persian and Arab?
A: First of all, they refer to different ethnicities. Most of the differences are actually rooted in language. Persian is not in the same family as Arabic. Arabic is a Semitic language. Persian is what they call an Indo-European language. Grammatical structures are quite different. Iran is a very ethnically heterogeneous society, so there are people of many different ethnicities, including Arabs, in Iran, but the majority of the population embraces the Persian language and a Persian identity, just like the majority of Arabs embrace the Arabic language and an Arab ethnicity, but there are Persians in the Arab lands, as there are Arabs in Iran.
Q: Iran was neither a part of the Ottoman Empire, nor a former French or British colony or mandate after the First World War. How was Iran able to avoid both being swallowed up by the Ottoman Empire, and being raided by European colonialism?
A: It’s a mix of things. I think that Iranian culture has always been a very strong feature of the identity of the people on the plateau, and I think that the fact that Iranians embrace Shiism as opposed to Sunni Islam helps to maintain their distinctiveness in the region. And I think that at the end of the day, although Iran was not in the most secure position in the 19th century financially, it never became a bankrupted state like the Ottoman Empire and Egypt. So those are the things that it had going for itself.
Q: Persian history stretches back thousands of years. What is considered to be the beginning of the modern era of Iran?
A: When you adopt a chronological framework, we really date modern Iran from 1796, which is the rise of dynasty called the Qajar Dynasty. But its modern origins really began with the dramatic events of the 1979 Revolution because it’s the first time in modern history, and really in the memory of Iranians, that the country is run as a republic. That is clearly a novelty, but the country is also essentially a theocracy.
Q: Your main lecture course is the ‘History of the Middle East since 1800.’ Where do you begin?
A: I actually start with the rise of the Ottoman Empire even though it’s in the 1300s. I very quickly bring the students to the 18th century, and then from there we study, on a week-by-week basis, the history of the Middle East through the 19th and 20th centuries.
Q: After World War I, do you think France and Great Britain should have taken more care in carving out the modern Middle Eastern states, with less seemingly arbitrarily drawn lines?
A: I think that there was some justification for the creation of these countries, but I’ve always argued that where they were questionable was in their actual boundary lines. So maybe the configuration shouldn’t have been exactly what it turned out to be, and that’s why we’re seeing so many repercussions of it from an ethnic perspective and a religious or sectarian perspective. Not a lot of thought went into what the consequences were going to be for the people actually living on the ground because they got very little input from the people on the ground, from the indigenous people.
Q: Nearly a century later and we’re still dealing with the repercussions?
A: Yes, we’re still paying the price for that, for sure. Those boundaries did not always create for easy coexistence of people.
Q: Tell me about the Middle East Center. What sorts of programs do you offer?
A: We’re a national resource center. We’re predominantly funded by the United States Department of Education. We offer scholarships to students for language training in the critical languages in the Middle East. We also provide teacher training to schools in the region that incorporates Middle East curricula. We provide outreach to the community in terms of the programs that we put together, a lot of scholarly programs and artistic programs.
Q: You are currently working on your second novel. What do you enjoy about writing fiction?
A: I think fiction is the only way you can get at the emotion, the difficulty of the experiences that people go through. As a scholar, when we’re talking about the Middle East, we can never really talk about what it felt like to live through a war, what it felt like to have your family disrupted and uprooted. You can get at those types of real human experiences through fiction in a way that you can’t through scholarly work. I find fiction writing very liberating, free, and more imaginative. But also, it gives me another angle of looking at and analyzing the events of the Middle East from the perspective of people’s emotional lives and experiences. It’s a lived experience of being in the Middle East as opposed to an analysis of the outcome of events.
Q: What is your 10-, 20-, 30-, or 50-year outlook for the Middle East?
A: Long term, I would say it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I think that some of these difficult moments must be lived before we can imagine greener pastures, only because people haven’t had a opportunity to speak out, people haven’t had a chance to express their dissatisfaction with their borders, for example, or for the fact that they don’t have a voice in government. They just want to feed their family. They want to have a better economic stake in the world system. They want to imagine their children growing up without getting maimed or killed. It might get worse before it gets better, I’m sorry to say. People in the Middle East don’t really have an outlet for voicing dissent, and anytime dissent gets bottled up, it leads to explosion. So we may be faced with more conflagrations still.
Originally published on October 17, 2013